Friday, November 16, 2012

FFB: THE DARK DESCENT edited by David Hartwell (Tor, 1987)

The first of Hartwell's survey anthologies (the sfnal The Ascent of Wonder would, as I didn't quite note correctly before, would follow in 1996,  with a title echoing that of this volume), today's bug-crusher was issued at the height of the "horror boom" of the latter '80s, an efflorescence of horror publishing of brilliant to horrible but entirely too often indifferent work that Tor as a publisher was to no small extent a contributor...albeit Tor's offerings did lean in the brilliant to indifferent direction, while the batting average of, say, Zebra Books was considerably worse (but, boy, did Zebra know how to deploy a shiny foil cover).  The Dark Descent tries to be a reasonably comprehensive attempt to encompass the literary history of its field, and its successes are mostly in that it's a good, if idiosyncratic, collection of fiction, mixing chestnuts with some very odd, if at times gratifyingly challenging, selections from canonical writers in the field, and capped with a remarkably unbalanced historical survey article as introduction, which agrees heartily with Stephen King, already ridiculously over-represented in such a book by three stories in a volume that can find room for only one each from Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, Manly Wade Wellman, Dennis Etchison, Joyce Carol Oates, John Collier or, for goodness's sake, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood or M. R. James (and an odd selection from Poe): that horror is at heart a reactionary approach to fiction, one which defines The Other as inherently monstrous and which must be destroyed for a return to normalcy. This is woefully incomplete as an assessment of horror fiction (or horror in art generally), and indicative of the kind of limitation of insight which mars King's work (among other factors) entirely too Rosemary Jackson, and not she alone, has noted, horror fiction is as liable to highlight the monstrous inherent in society, and how the Other is victimized by that normalcy (see the most obvious Shirley Jackson chestnut, albeit I'd class "The Lottery" as more akin to horror than horror per se, or the Gilman chestnut included here--arguably ditto!) well as, as with every other mode of art,  horror having the ability to take even more points of view which take neither position explicitly.

To ignore, say, Philip Dick's "Upon the Dull Earth" or "The Father Thing"  for "...Tempunauts" or Sturgeon's "It" or "Shottle Bop" for "Bright Segment" is to make an interesting argument, and certainly two inclusions each by Jackson, Thomas Disch and Robert Aickman are both more justified than three from King and, at least in Disch or Aickman's case, less commercially savvy, and should be applauded...but this is not an impeccable selection as a result, and its use as a text seems to have receded...I hope to suggest that the overpraise it received at time of release, such as the late Charles Brown's capsule review included with the index below, and its relative obscurity a quarter-century later (if in-print status), in the wake of such newer rodent-crushers as (George Kelley's selection this week) the VanderMeers' The Weird, are both unfair...if not as unfair as the greater obscurity such near-contemporaneous volumes as the Pronzini, Malzberg and Greenberg item have fallen into (perhaps in part due to the fact that Tor survives, and Arbor House doesn't--and the Pronizini, et al., is also in print, if under slightly different title than it was).

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

The Dark Descent ed. David G. Hartwell (Tor 0-312-93035-6, Oct ’87, $29.95, 1011pp, hc) Massive anthology of horror stories. It attempts to trace the history of horror short fiction as well as covering the contemporary field. There is also a long, insightful introduction, and the head notes to each story actually try to say something about the literature and the author’s place in it. This should be considered the reference work on horror short fiction, and will probably remain so for many years. Highly recommended. (CNB)
  • 1 · Introduction · David G. Hartwell · in
  • 15 · The Reach [“Do the Dead Sing?”] · Stephen King · ss Yankee Nov ’81
  • 31 · Evening Primrose · John Collier · ss, 1940
  • 40 · The Ash-Tree · M. R. James · ss Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Edward Arnold, 1904
  • 50 · The New Mother · Lucy Lane Clifford · ss Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise, Macmillan and Co., 1882
  • 59 · There’s a Long, Long Trail A-Winding · Russell Kirk · nv Frights, ed. Kirby McCauley, St. Martins, 1976
  • 85 · The Call of Cthulhu [Inspector Legrasse] · H. P. Lovecraft · nv Weird Tales Feb ’28
  • 108 · The Summer People · Shirley Jackson · ss Charm Sep ’50
  • 118 · The Whimper of Whipped Dogs · Harlan Ellison · ss Bad Moon Rising, ed. Thomas M. Disch, Harper & Row, 1973
  • 132 · Young Goodman Brown · Nathaniel Hawthorne · ss New England Magazine Apr, 1835
  • 142 · Mr. Justice Harbottle [“The Haunted House in Westminster”; Martin Hesselius] · Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu · nv Belgravia Jan, 1872
  • 167 · The Crowd · Ray Bradbury · ss Weird Tales May ’43
  • 175 · The Autopsy · Michael Shea · nv F&SF Dec ’80
  • 203 · John Charrington’s Wedding · E. Nesbit · ss Temple Bar Sep, 1891
  • 209 · Sticks · Karl Edward Wagner · nv Whispers Mar ’74
  • 225 · Larger Than Oneself · Robert Aickman · nv Powers of Darkness, Collins, 1966
  • 245 · Belsen Express · Fritz Leiber · ss The Second Book of Fritz Leiber, DAW, 1975
  • 255 · Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper · Robert Bloch · ss Weird Tales Jul ’43
  • 268 · If Damon Comes · Charles L. Grant · ss The Year’s Best Horror Stories: Series VI, ed. Gerald W. Page, DAW, 1978
  • 278 · Vandy, Vandy [John] · Manly Wade Wellman · ss F&SF Mar ’53
  • 291 · The Swords · Robert Aickman · nv The Fifth Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories, ed. Robert Aickman, Fontana, 1969
  • 312 · The Roaches · Thomas M. Disch · ss Escapade Oct ’65
  • 321 · Bright Segment · Theodore Sturgeon · nv Caviar, Ballantine, 1955
  • 339 · Dread · Clive Barker · nv Clive Barker’s Books of Blood v2, Sphere, 1984
  • 368 · The Fall of the House of Usher · Edgar Allan Poe · ss Burton’s Gentlemen’s Magazine Sep, 1839
  • 382 · The Monkey · Stephen King · nv Gallery Nov ’80
  • 410 · Within the Walls of Tyre · Michael Bishop · nv Weirdbook #13 ’78
  • 431 · The Rats in the Walls · H. P. Lovecraft · ss Weird Tales Mar ’24
  • 445 · Schalken the Painter · Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu · nv Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery, James McGlashan, 1851; revised from an earlier story in Dublin University Magazine May ’39.
  • 460 · The Yellow Wallpaper · Charlotte Perkins Gilman · ss New England Magazine Jan, 1892
  • 472 · A Rose for Emily · William Faulkner · ss The Forum Apr ’30
  • 480 · How Love Came to Professor Guildea [“The Man Who Was Beloved”] · Robert S. Hichens · na Pearson’s Magazine Oct, 1897
  • 513 · Born of Man and Woman · Richard Matheson · vi F&SF Sum ’50
  • 516 · My Dear Emily · Joanna Russ · nv F&SF Jul ’62
  • 532 · You Can Go Now · Dennis Etchison · ss Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine Sep ’80
  • 541 · The Rocking-Horse Winner · D. H. Lawrence · ss The Ghost-Book, ed. Cynthia Asquith, London: Hutchinson, 1926
  • 553 · Three Days · Tanith Lee · nv Shadows #7, ed. Charles L. Grant, Doubleday, 1984
  • 576 · Good Country People · Flannery O’Connor · ss Harper’s Bazaar Jun ’55
  • 591 · Mackintosh Willy · Ramsey Campbell · ss Shadows #2, ed. Charles L. Grant, Doubleday, 1979
  • 602 · The Jolly Corner · Henry James · nv The English Review Dec ’08
  • 629 · Smoke Ghost · Fritz Leiber · ss Unknown Oct ’41
  • 641 · Seven American Nights · Gene Wolfe · na Orbit 20, ed. Damon Knight, Harper & Row, 1978
  • 680 · The Signalman · Charles Dickens · ss All the Year Round Christmas, 1866
  • 690 · Crouch End · Stephen King · nv New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Arkham, 1980
  • 712 · Night-Side · Joyce Carol Oates · nv Night-Side, 1977
  • 731 · Seaton’s Aunt · Walter de la Mare · nv The London Mercury Apr ’22
  • 753 · Clara Militch · Ivan Turgenev · nv Dream Tales and Prose Poems, Macmillan, 1897
  • 793 · The Repairer of Reputations · Robert W. Chambers · nv The King in Yellow, New York & Chicago: F. Tennyson Neely, 1895
  • 817 · The Beckoning Fair One · Oliver Onions · na Widdershins, Secker, 1911
  • 864 · What Was It? · Fitz-James O’Brien · ss Harper’s Mar, 1859
  • 874 · The Beautiful Stranger · Shirley Jackson · ss Come Along With Me, Viking, 1968
  • 880 · The Damned Thing · Ambrose Bierce · ss Tales from New York Town Topics Dec 7, 1893; Weird Tales Sep ’23
  • 887 · Afterward · Edith Wharton · nv The Century Jan ’10
  • 909 · The Willows · Algernon Blackwood · na The Listener and Other Stories, London: Eveleigh Nash, 1907
  • 944 · The Asian Shore · Thomas M. Disch · nv Orbit 6, ed. Damon Knight, G.P. Putnam’s, 1970
  • 970 · The Hospice · Robert Aickman · nv Cold Hand in Mine, Scribner’s, 1975
  • 995 · A Little Something for Us Tempunauts · Philip K. Dick · nv Final Stage, ed. Edward L. Ferman & Barry N. Malzberg, Charterhouse, 1974


Craig Clarke said...

I received The Dark Descent as a gift from the uncle who had introduced me to both horror and Ray Bradbury. It was instrumental in broadening my knowledge of the field at a time when only King and Koontz (with the occasional Michael Slade) novels were to be found on bookstore shelves. This is probably more than anything else due to the fact that it ties me to that time (and the emotional connection it has to my now-late uncle), but I still find it highly educational regarding where the genre has been, and I'm always happy to see that it is still being discussed. Thanks for your additional take on it.

Todd Mason said...

I tend to forget how lucky I was to have decent bookstores and (usually) libraries at hand in New England and Honolulu in my youth.

Those sound like very dire bookstores indeed.

Anonymous said...

The Ascent of Wonder actually came out in 1994; the book you're thinking of is Age of Wonders, his 1984 nonfiction survey of the SF field.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, are correct, I conflated the two titles.